Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism II

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Kippah and Gown: Rethinking Orthodoxy and Biblical Criticism

Essay 2 The Rabbinic Mandate to Understand the Torah in Ancient Near Eastern Context

In this series
* Essay 1
* Essay 2
* Essay 3
* Essay 4

To address anew the issue raised in Essay 1—the discrepancies between the accounts in Devarim and the earlier books of the Torah—requires us to understand the Torah in its ancient Near Eastern context. But is this a religiously legitimate approach? Is not the Torah eternally valid and above time? Don’t we slight the Torah when we propose that it expresses itself in a manner that is culture-dependent or more relevant for one generation than another? These questions are crucial not only when we consider Orthodoxy’s engagement with biblical criticism. They are critical whenever we wish to study the Torah on its peshat level. This essay considers what our texts say about the Torah as a literary creation of the ancient world.

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined

One can marshal a wide spectrum of opinions on this topic, indeed, as with so many issues in rabbinic thought. My aim here is dual: 1) to demonstrate that some of our greatest sages maintained that the Torah not only can be read, but must be read in precisely this way; 2) that these sages maintained that reading the Torah in its ancient context is a sacred enterprise and does not denigrate the sanctity or “eternal” nature of the kitvei ha-kodesh—our sacred Scriptures.

I. Rambam’s Doctrine of Gradual Development in the Divine Plan

Many matters in the Torah can be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world

The Rambam has a particularly rich and detailed meditation on the importance of reading the Torah in its ancient context. To probe his thinking, I would like to examine his well-known—but often misunderstood—explanation of animal sacrifice in the Guide for the Perplexed. As many know, the Rambam saw the institution of animal sacrifice in the Torah as concessive in nature. Israel knew no form of worship other than the worship of idols she had seen in Egypt. The Almighty had no choice, therefore, but to establish norms of worship in a form they could recognize.[1. Some erroneously assume that the Rambam was the first to articulate this view. It has clear antecedents, however, in Vayikra Rabbah 22:8.] Over two lengthy chapters of the Guide (3:32, 46), the Rambam identifies the specific heathen practices relating to the god Aries, Hindu practice, and the cultic norms of an ancient culture he knew as the Sabeans. He sees the minutiae of the avodah (sacrificial service) recorded in the Torah as a vehicle to reform those norms. He explains specific mitzvot, such as the prohibition against using honey or leavened bread in the sacrificial worship of the Temple, in light of these ancient practices.

The Rambam stresses that the mitzvot he explains through ancient context are not an exhaustive list. He bemoans the fact that he is so removed in place and time from the ancient world and cannot fully appreciate the reforms inherent in each aspect of the avodah (Guide 3:49):

Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.

This passage by itself demonstrates that the Rambam held that there were many matters in the Torah that could be understood only by gaining access to the cultures of the ancient world. Probing the Rambam further, however, we learn that familiarity with the ancient world is crucial not only to understand the mitzvot. Such study for the Rambam has theological significance: it allows us to discern God’s caring and fostering nature.

To grasp this point we need to appreciate where his discussion of sacrifice appears in the Guide, beginning in Section 3 chapter 32. As is well-known, the Rambam ascribes rationales for the mitzvot in chapters 35-49. Chapter 32 is an introductory chapter to that effort. The chapter explores the Divine hand evident in processes of development, by which the Rambam means development of all kinds: the physiological development of men and beasts, and the spiritual and psychological development of individuals and of nations. The chapter opens as follows:

On considering the Divine acts or the processes of Nature we get an insight into the prudence and wisdom of God as displayed in the creation of animals, with the gradual development of the movements of their limbs and the relative positions of the latter, and we perceive also His wisdom and plan in the successive and gradual development of the whole condition of each individual.

When we discern the wonders of physiological development, according to the Rambam, we more fully apprehend the Almighty’s prudence, plan and wisdom. The point here is not merely an appreciation of the Divine Clockmaker, as it were, a recognition of the wonders of physiology. The Rambam here draws our attention to how physiological mechanisms grow step by step. The Rambam then extends his recognition of the divinely guided processes of development from the realm of animal physiology to the realm of national flourishing:

Many precepts in our Law are the result of a similar course adopted by the same Supreme Being. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other; it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed… By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established… It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service.

The Rambam’s discussion of animal sacrifice, therefore, is much more than an exploration of the rationale of a given mitzvah. It is certainly much more than an apologetic for an institution that some might say was a source of embarrassment for the Rambam. Rather, it is an appreciation of the guiding path of slow, spiritual growth afforded Israel by the Almighty, which is part and parcel of His wisdom in guiding the step-by-step growth and development of all creatures in all ways. The Rambam further notes the Divine hand of developmental guidance at work concerning national character. He explains that as the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah says that the Almighty did not want to lead the Children of Israel to the promised land via the coast, or “via the Philistine route.” He sees this as an expression of the same developmental guidance that the Almighty offers Israel through the medium of animal sacrifice:

It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage. For it is a well-known fact that traveling in the wilderness and privation of bodily enjoyments such as bathing, produce courage, while the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness: In the same way, the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith.

The Rambam strives to understand as much as he can about ancient Near Eastern culture. Doing so enables him to discern the prudence and wisdom of the Divine hand and the Divine plan. The Rambam maintains that the Torah’s cultic prescriptions are a broad mélange of continuities and discontinuities with ancient Near Eastern practice. A deep recognition of the interplay between the two enables us to apprehend how the Almighty nurtures Israel’s spiritual development in incremental steps.[2. Fascinating in this regard is the well-known Talmudic statement (Shabbat 88b-89a) that the Torah was composed 974 generations prior to Creation, which would seem to negate a view that it was written with a given generation in mind. Yet the context of that passage reveals precisely the opposite: the angels question why the Torah was given to Moses and the Almighty essentially responds that the Torah was written specifically for the generation of the Exodus.] Our own study of the Torah in ancient Near Eastern context should be animated by the same impulse: to discern how the Torah orchestrates the play between continuity and discontinuity with ancient culture.[3. For a full-length exercise of this approach with regard to political ideas in the Torah, see my Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford University Press, 2008). In digest form, see my essay, “What Orthodoxy Can Gain From Academic Biblical Studies: The Torah as Political Theory,” available here: link.]

As is well-known, the Rambam had detractors who strenuously disagreed with his accounting of the sacrifices, notably the Ramban in his comments to Vayikra 1:9. I note, however, the points staked out by the Ramban in his claim, and more significantly, the points he does not make. The Ramban expresses reservations on two accounts. First, he feels that it would simply be ineffective to try to wean Israel off of sacrifice by perpetuating that very institution. Second, he notes that the Torah at a number of points suggests loftier purposes for the sacrifices and nowhere portrays them merely as a stop-gap measure or as concessive in nature. What is noticeably absent from the Ramban’s exposition is the claim that it is insulting to the Torah to suggest it speaks with more immediacy to earlier generations than to later ones.[4. The absence may be because the Ramban does not believe that any such tenet exists. Note his commentary to Shemot 6:25, where he questions why the Torah would point out that Elazar the priest married someone from “the daughters of Putiel”, with no indication of whom this Putiel was or why he was deserving of distinction. One of the Ramban’s suggestions is that Putiel was known to his generation. Put differently, the Ramban allows that the Torah may have spoken with more immediacy to its own generation that to later ones. My thanks to Martin Lockshin for bringing this to my attention.]

II. Ralbag: The Torah Communicates According to the Literary Conventions of Its Age

Ralbag realizes that aesthetics are not universals

Another prominent medieval figure, Ralbag, stresses the importance of grasping the Torah within its ancient context, from a second perspective. For Ralbag, such context contributes to our understanding of the Torah’s poetics: the literary devices and conventions that it employs to convey the divine message. The final two sedrot (weekly portions) of Sefer Shemot raise a well-known question: The sedrot of Terumah and Tetzaveh lay out in great detail the component parts of the Tabernacle that Bezalel is to construct. Why does the Torah repeat all of these details, nearly verbatim, in its narration of the construction of the Tabernacle in the sedrot of Vayakhel and Pekudei? Ralbag raises this question at the conclusion to his commentary to Sefer Shemot and his answer is fascinating on a number of levels:

וראוי שנעיין בהתרת ספק עמוק יקרה בזה הספור וברבים מספורי התורה. וזה שהוא ראוי בתורה מצד שלמותה שלא יהיה בדבריה כפל ומותר. ואנחנו רואים בזה המקום הכפל בלתי צריך אליו. יהיה די כשיאמר ויעש בצלאל בן אורי בן חור את כל מלאכת המשכן כאשר צוה ה’ את משה ואתו אהליאב בן אחיסמך וגו’. וכבר מצאנו כמו זה ההכפל במקומות רבים מן התורה ולא מצאנו עד חיום הזה סבה כוללת מספקת. ואפשר שנאמר שכבר היה מנהג האנשים ההם בזמן מתן תורה שיהיו ספוריהם בזה האופן והנביא אמנם ידבר לפי מנהג.

We ought to attend to a most-puzzling issue here in this account, and in many of the Torah’s accounts, and that is, that owing to its perfection, the Torah should not contain anything repetitious or extraneous. Yet we see here (i.e. in these last two sedrot of Sefer Shemot –JB) repetitiousness without purpose. It would have been sufficient for the Torah to state, “And Bezalel the son of Uri the son of Hur made the Tabernacle, as commanded by the Lord”… Moreover, we encounter such repetitiousness at many junctures in the Torah, and to this day, we have not found a compelling explanation for this. Perhaps we may say that it was the convention at the time of the giving of the Torah to fashion literature in this way and that the prophet expresses himself through the conventions of the times.

Ralbag displays a remarkable degree of cultural humility. He realizes that aesthetics are not universals. He understands that the mark of literary perfection for one age may not be held in the same regard by another. No less striking is his realization that even the Torah could not express itself in some form of “Divine Esperanto,” whereby the Divine word would communicate with equal clarity to all human listeners. Ralbag realizes that it is the limitation of man that precludes this. What is most remarkable about Ralbag’s remarks is that without any exposure to the compositions of the ancient Near East his conjecture is precisely on the mark. One of the hallmarks of composition—of many types of genres—in the ancient Near East is a predilection for what appears to contemporary tastes as unaesthetic repetition.[5. In the ancient world, many written compositions were, in fact, passed on orally. Repetition aided in oral transmission.] No doubt, Ralbag would have rejoiced to know this as a fact.

Even as I propose engaging ancient Near Eastern texts to help us understand the Torah, I realize that for many there is a certain hesitation to do so that stems from the realm of religious psychology. When you sit to learn, there is a certain aura of kedushah that you feel as you open a textured, cranberry colored sefer from left to right. Somehow, Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts just doesn’t do it. There’s almost a feeling that such materials, even if not forbidden, are surely from the world of hullin, the wider, general world, and somehow encroach upon the holiness of the endeavor of Talmud Torah. In our world, where an atmosphere of holiness—kedushah—is such a fragile thing, the feeling is understandable. However, figures like the Rambam, Ralbag, and Abarbanel freely and seamlessly integrated non-Torah materials into their study of the Torah. It’s worth recalling that their works, too, today are bound in textured, cranberry colored covers and should offer us the religious security blanket to do the same.[6. Rabbi Abraham Isaac ha-Kohen Kook also entertained the idea that the Torah incorporates aspects of ancient Near Eastern thought and writing. See the thoughtful essay of R. Chaim Navon, available here: link. We can also add Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi to the list of those who utilized ancient Near Eastern customs to explain biblical passages. See Basil Herring, Joseph Ibn Kaspi’s Gevia’ Kesef: A Study in Jewish Medieval Philosophic Bible Commentary (Ktav, 1982), pp. 61-63 for specific instances. I thank R. Basil Herring for bringing these sources about Ibn Ezra and Ibn Kaspi to my attention.]

III. The Torah: Culture-Dependent and Eternal?

We have seen, then, at least two prominent sages who underscore the importance of grasping the Torah’s ancient Near Eastern context. Yet, if there are aspects of the Torah that are indeed best understood in ancient context, in what sense is the Torah “eternal”?

The supposition of the Torah’s “eternity,” while correct, needs to be defined. Do we mean that its meaning is fixed, singular and eternal? Such a position contravenes fundamental tenets of rabbinic Judaism. If this is the sense in which the Torah is eternal, then there is no room for Hillel Ha-Zaken to introduce the seven principles through which he interpreted the Torah, nor is there room for R. Yishmael to introduce his 13 additional principles of interpretation. Indeed, there would have been no room for any interpretation at all. All ages would need to understand the Torah in exactly the same manner. The “eternal” nature of the Written Torah, its multifaceted richness, is found only through the medium of the interpretative process of the Torah She-be’al Peh. The Sages teach that there are seventy “faces” to the Torah. The simplest meaning, the peshat, is sometimes time-dependent, addressed to the generation that received the Torah. But its other meanings radiate throughout the millennia, allowing new perspectives and interpretations to thrive.

In my next essay I will explore the genre of ancient treaties between kings and vassals and how a grasp of this genre contributes to our understanding of the Torah and the paradigm it presents for the relationship between God and Israel. This will set the table for the final essay of this series which will explore the role of contradictory historical narratives within that literature and how the same dynamic is exhibited in the discrepancies between the narratives of Sefer Devarim and the earlier books of the Torah.

(Next installment here: link)

About Joshua Berman

Joshua Berman is a professor of Tanakh at Bar-Ilan University. He learned at Yeshivat Har-Etzion and has semikhah from the Israeli Chief Rabbinate. Among his books are The Temple: Its Symbolism and Meaning Then and Now (repr. Wipf & Stock, 2010) and Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought (Oxford, 2008), a National Jewish Book Award Finalist in Scholarship.


  1. Yitzhak Berger

    Note further that the Ramban himself (Shemot 28:2) accounts for the specifics of the bigdei kehunah, to which the Torah devotes considerable attention, by affirming that kings wore clothing of that sort in the ancient period. (With respect to only some of the begadim does he suggest that their standing as royal garb endured until his day.) Whereas his evidence is based on biblical texts, his point is a historical one. In general, only the resulting honor, afforded by these begadim, appears to carry theological importance in his opinion.

  2. The link above to the essay is actually to Dr Berman’s articles on seforim blog. The specific post referred to is

  3. Has anyone commented/asked on the accuracy of your last paragraph? Do we look at the 13 middos of Rabbi Yishmael and 7 middos of Hillel and assume they were the one’s who created them? and until then there was no gezeirah shavah? no kal v’chomer? no binyan av’s until them? IMO you need another paragraph/essay on that comment or at least on a better description with sources of what you understand the eternity of the Torah to be–ie what does the passuk “zot Hatorah lo tehei muchlefet” mean hashkafically if the torah has pesukim that only were meant for the generation of kabala to understand

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